Every Live-Action Superman Movie, Ranked

7 minute read

By Jack Sackman

From Bryan Singer’s awful adaptation in 2006 to the unforgettable Superman: The Movie starring the iconic Christopher Reeves, the Man of Steel franchise sure has experienced its ups and downs over the years. Outside of maybe only Spider-Man and Batman, Supes is without a doubt one of the most notorious superheroes in the entire world, which is why it’s so frustrating to watch Warner Bros. mishandle the iconic hero time after time.

“They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you… my only son.” Jor-El

While we wait for DC Comics and Warner Bros. to figure out who will replace Henry Cavill as the next Man of Steel, join us as we rank the eight best Superman movies, from worst to best. Enjoy!

8. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)

Unquestionably the worst Superman film ever made, 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was so bad that it effectively killed the franchise for 20 years. It literally took a generation to get over this fiasco. And what a fiasco it was. This absolutely horrible movie, which was produced by a different production company than the one that made the first three Superman movies, Lex Luthor creates an evil solar-powered version of Superman called Nuclear Man. This plot is meant to be a jumping off point for a message about nuclear disarmament, and indeed the film contains a cringe-worthy scene where Superman makes such a plea in front of the United Nations. But this movie isn’t just bad because it’s preachy. It also has a terrible script, cheap special effects, and very weird casting choices – including Jon Cryer as Lex’s nephew Lenny Luthor. Need we say more? This movie is so bad, it is on many film critics list of the worst movies ever made. Trust us, skip it.

Source: Screenshot via Warner Bros.

7. Superman Returns (2006)

This Superman film is a case of good intentions that just didn’t pan out. The first Superman movie since the above-mentioned disaster, Superman Returns aimed to reboot the franchise for a new generation and return the Superman films to their past glory. Director and producer Bryan Singer aimed to restore much of what made the first few Superman movies great, including the score by John Williams and the voice-over narration by actor Marlon Brando as Superman’s Kryptonian father Jor-El. In fact, Singer said in interviews that he aimed to make Superman Returns a direct sequel to Superman: The Movie and Superman II – and wanted to completely ignore the events of Superman III and Superman IV. Noble ambitions, to be sure. But it just doesn’t work. The main reason being the casting of this film – or miscasting. It starts with actor Brandon Routh, who was hired to play Clark Kent/Superman because of his resemblance to Christopher Reeve, but who cannot act at all. Add in Kevin Spacey as a smarmy Lex Luthor and Kate Bosworth as a stiff Lois Lane, and it all goes kaput pretty fast. The cast in this film is not able to generate any joy, fun, or interest for the audience. Singer gets an “A” for effort here, but a “C” for execution.

Source: Screenshot via Warner Bros.

6. Superman and the Mole Men (1951)

A shoutout here to actor George Reeves, who originated Clark Kent and Superman in this old movie, and in the highly popular 1950s television show that spun off the success of this film. Superman and the Mole Men also has the distinction of being the first theatrical feature film based on any DC Comics character. While old, this movie has its charms and was hugely popular in its day. In the film, reporters Clark Kent and Lois Lane arrive in the small town of Silsby to witness the drilling of the world’s deepest oil well. The drill, however, penetrates the underground home of a race of small Mole Men, who climb to the surface at night and glow in the dark, scaring the heck out of the townsfolk in the process. It’s not long before the locals form a lynch mob intent on killing the Mole Men. Superman is forced to intervene to prevent a tragedy and save both the townsfolk and Mole Men from each other. Of course, much in this movie now looks dated – especially the special effects. Still, this movie is okay. It’s certainly not the worst thing in the Superman film canon.

Source: Screenshot via Lippert Pictures

5. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

So much has been said about Batman v Superman over the past year, what can we really add to here? The fact is that this movie, while showing brief moments of promise, just doesn’t hold up in a final analysis. Overstuffed with too many characters in an effort to set-up 2017’s Justice League and with some more bad casting choices – Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor? Can we please get someone appropriate to play Lex? C’mon! Add in crapptacular special effects and chaotic action sequences that don’t justify themselves and you’re left with, at best, a two-hour ad for the Justice League movie, and, at worst, a fairly lame standalone DC Comics movie. While Ben Affleck was surprisingly good as Bruce Wayne / Batman, Gal Gadot underwhelms as Wonder Woman. And Eisenberg is just plain irritating as Luthor. Again, promising in parts, but director Zack Snyder just doesn’t pull it together in the end.

Source: Screenshot via Warner Bros.

4. Superman III (1983)

As they said repeatedly in the comedy classic Office Space, Superman III is a very underrated film. While not the best movie in the franchise, Superman III is plenty entertaining, has an interesting plot, and contains enough cool moments (the splitting of Superman into good and evil and battling himself in a junkyard takes the cake) to make this movie worth watching. At the time of its release, critics mostly couldn’t accept the fact that comedian Richard Pryor is in the movie. That and some campy moments from director Richard Lester, who began his career with the Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night. And while Pryor is distracting at times, this movie has some really cool special effects and was actually a box office hit in the summer of 1983. Plus, the skimming scam perpetrated by Pryor’s computer hacker character has been praised, mentioned, and repeated in multiple movies since, including Office Space. For being influential and fun, Superman III lands in the fourth spot on this list.

Source: Screenshot via
Warner Bros.

3. Man of Steel (2013)

While not great, 2013’s Man of Steel is still a pretty serviceable Superman flick. It is certainly better than the previous films on this list. Basically, a remake of the first two Superman movies, mashed into one film, Man of Steel at least gets the casting right. Henry Cavill feels right as Superman, Amy Adams is strong, though very serious, Lois Lane, Kevin Costner fits as Jonathan Kent and Michael Shannon kills it as General Zod. We might quibble with the casting of Russell Crowe as Jor-El (he’s no Marlon Brando), but overall this movie works. The action sequences are also strong, even if the story itself does feel rehashed and warmed over. If nothing else, this movie, which grossed $670 million worldwide, helped revive the Superman franchise and set-up the Man of Steel’s presence in the DC cinematic universe.

Source: Screenshot via Warner Bros.

2. Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (2006)

The original 1980 version of Superman II is good enough to land in this spot, but we prefer the 2006 re-edited version of the movie by its original director Richard Donner. It is well known that Richard Donner filmed both Superman: The Movie (1978) and this sequel back-to-back. However, when Donner fell out with the films’ producers, he was replaced by Richard Lester towards the end of filming Superman II. Lester would finish the editing of the theatrical version of the movie. More than a quarter of a century later, Donner got the final word with a re-edited version of the movie that he cut together and put out on Blu-Ray in 2006. This re-edited version of Superman II features a significant amount of lost footage shot by Donner that was not used in the original cut – notably a good deal of footage featuring Marlon Brando as Jor-El. It was this footage that director Bryan Singer used in the Jor-El narration featured in Superman Returns. While the beginning and ending of Superman II remain largely the same in either version, the middle of the movie is quite different, and even uses many different camera angles that make for a superior film – one that is a worthy and excellent sequel. If you can find the Richard Donner cut of Superman II, we highly recommend it.

Source: Screenshot via Warner Bros.

1. Superman: The Movie (1978)

What can we say? Superman: The Movie still stands as the very best film about the Man of Steel, and one of the best superhero movies of all-time. It is certainly one of the best origin stories ever made about a superhero. So good, in fact, that film critic Roger Ebert named this film to his vaunted Great Movies list, praising the fact that Superman: The Movie takes its time with the origin story and noting that viewers don’t actually see Superman until an hour into the movie. This allows the film to do what so many superhero flicks fail at — actually developing characters that we care about. The casting is also perfect – not just Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent/Superman and Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, but Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor and Marlon Brando as Jor-El. Plus, the special effects still hold up to this day – it still looks amazing when Superman flies Lois Lane over Metropolis. And there is a good deal of humor in this movie, that is often underappreciated. From start-to-finish, Superman: The Movie is great. Even the tagline, “You’ll believe a man can fly,” is perfect. This film set a standard that the Superman franchise has been struggling to maintain for nearly 40 years. It is simply the best.

Source: Screenshot via Warner Bros.

Jack Sackman


Jack Sackman has been writing about movies and TV for Goliath since 2013.